What are the demographic patterns of falling primary school enrolment?
Declining birth rates suggest that primary reception cohorts will be even smaller!
This new research has analysed demographic trends and their effects on school enrolments and occupancy rates – it’s fascinating. The main conclusions from SchoolDash are:
Year-group cohorts can vary greatly in size, sometimes by 20% or more, and often rise and fall in waves. This has effects on school occupancy rates (pupil headcount as a percentage of school capacity) and class sizes.
Falling primary enrolments
Overall, primary school occupancy is currently falling because the cohorts that have recently entered reception and key stage 1 are smaller than their predecessors. Therefore, primary school enrolments is likely to fall further as these smaller key stage 1 cohorts enter key stage 2 and replace the larger cohorts currently occupying those year groups.
Future primary enrolments
Recent declining birth rates suggest that reception cohorts in the near future will be even smaller, so the overall decline in primary school enrolment is likely to continue for at least the next few years. SchoolDash estimates that the total state primary school population in England could fall by about 2% over the next three years. That may not sound like a lot, but it corresponds to around 95,000 children or roughly 400 medium-sized primary schools.
The Department for Education’s own estimates, which take into account rising nursery participation, among other factors, suggest a similar decline, albeit delayed by about two years.
How do the changes fall?
Reductions to date in primary school occupancy have not been uniform, but have tended to affect certain types of schools more than others. Smaller primary schools and those with lower Ofsted ratings not only had lower occupancies in 2015, before the current declines began, they have also fallen further than other schools since then. Occupancy in London has fallen further than in other parts of the country. These kinds of schools and locations are likely to face the biggest challenges with any ongoing decline in primary pupil numbers.
In contrast, overall secondary school occupancy has risen since 2015. Nevertheless, many of the same trends are evident: low Ofsted ratings, small school sizes and non-selective status all correlate with relatively low and decreasing school occupancy.
Depending on your point of view, these trends either increase systemic inequality or are simply signs of the education market in action (or both). In either case, they pose questions for those tasked with running schools and planning future provision.